Saturday, October 17, 2009

Stop, Look, and Listen

Sometimes you just have to go on instinct.

The other day, pressed for time as usual, I decided that I didn’t have time to make any birding stops on my morning drive.

But as I approached the big agricultural area where I’ve had such good luck birding in the past few weeks, I sensed that it would be a good day to drop in there. The miserable weather – cold, drizzly, with a few specks of early snow – meant that birds would be hungry and out foraging. And now, at the height of fall migration, you never know what will turn up. So I decided to stop for just a few minutes to see what might be there.

Along the first part of the access road, trees and shrubs on one side, and a tree-edged field on the other side, offer great mixed habitat. The poison-ivy and bittersweet vines are loaded with berries, and all sorts of birds were feeding busily in the trees. This fall I’ve been keeping a mental list of some of the birds I’ve observed eating the greeny-gold poison ivy berries, including Black-capped Chickadees, Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers, Yellow-rumped Warblers, and American Robins.

As I rounded the corner into the open fields, I saw that the areas to the right of the road had been freshly plowed, probably the day before. Before me was a huge expanse of neatly tilled, rich brown muddy dirt – beautiful stuff, but entirely empty of visible life. I felt a stab of disappointment, as I had hoped to see lots of sparrows among the weeds and corn stubble that had been there earlier in the week. I just sat and looked at the muddy furrows, contemplating whether to go further.

As I stared across the brown expanse, it seemed to come alive….there were birds, dozens, a hundred, perhaps as many as two hundred little brown birds walking and feeding in the field! So well did they blend with their surroundings that until I had stopped and remained still and receptive I never saw them at all.

What were they? A quick glance with the binoculars showed that these were American Pipits, slender brown-and-buff streaked birds that breed on the tundra at the northernmost reaches of the continent. They pass through our area on the way to their wintering grounds in the Southern U.S. and beyond. In Connecticut, a few may overwinter at large grassy areas along the coast. At first glance they look sparrow-like, but their slender bills, more elegant shape, and walking (not hopping) behavior are distinctive.

I turned off the truck and sat there for quite a while; soon, they were all around me on the ground, taking short flights back and forth, and calling their sweet “slip-ip” notes (Sibley). It was interesting to see how much food they pulled from the seemingly-barren muddy field: insects, worms, seeds, and other tasty tidbits that I couldn’t identify.

I was parked right next to a brushy edge with a few small trees, where all sorts of sparrows were busy with the weed seeds. Song, Savannah, Lincoln’s, Chipping, Vesper, and Swamp Sparrows were all there, and Palm Warblers (Eastern and Western) and Yellow-rumped Warblers added some soft yellow accents. A little “pishing” had them jumping to the top of weedy stalks to get a better look at me, and I got some great looks.

After a while, I went on. Good thing I had the truck that morning, as recent rain had left the access road muddy, with deep puddles in some of the lower areas. My understanding husband says he doesn’t mind the constant mud on the truck (“That’s what it’s for,” he says.). I engaged the four-wheel drive and squelched through.

A quick flashing movement caught my eye… low across the field, scattering the Pipits, a Merlin blasted through, looking for breakfast. This feisty medium-sized falcon is probably the most common of our falcon species. After a few turns around the fields, it perched on a bare branch of a nearby tree; by coincidence, this was exactly the same spot the local American Kestrel had used for a hunting perch. It sat there for a while, looking cold and hungry, then took off for fields on the other side of the river.

Lots of good birds have been coming through the yard at home, too. I’ve spotted Ruby-crowned kinglets and Yellow-rumped warblers, and yesterday three late Purple Grackles visited the feeder. I’m still waiting for the Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker to return; we’ve had one resident in the yard for the past two winters. A small flock of White-Throated Sparrows stopped for a while the other day; when I took a few moments to look at them closely, I was delighted to see a rarer White-crowned Sparrow among them. The last (and only) time I’d seen one of these handsome birds was in Yosemite National Park. So that was a treat.

Always stop, look, and listen! You never know what you might see.

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